SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Caleb Homesley was the last one into the Liberty locker room Friday, a tardiness that was the product of an entirely new set of postgame responsibilities for him.
First, there was the interview broadcast to a national audience. Then Homesley patiently obliged the delirious fans seeking handshakes and selfies. Former NBA All-Star Steve Smith approvingly patted Homesley on the calf as he gingerly squeezed past on his way to the locker room.
When Homesley finally arrived, the door shut quickly behind him, and suddenly a wail of cheers could be heard throughout the bowels of the SAP Center.
It was a long-overdue moment for a player who has patiently waited to fully recover from three season-ending injuries in five years and round into the prospect everyone thought he might become someday.
"It was hard at first, but then I realize that it wasn't my time," Homesley said. "Tonight it was just my time."
Homesley, a 6-foot-6 junior guard, had the game of his life Friday night in the 12th-seeded Flames' 80-76 upset victory over 5-seed Mississippi State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. He finished with a career-high 30 points, 14 coming during a pivotal 16-4 run that turned a 10-point deficit into a 69-67 lead for Liberty with 2 minutes, 34 seconds left and ultimately clinched the first tournament win in school history.
The outburst seemingly came from nowhere, as Homesley averaged only 12 points a game this season, and he hadn't scored more than 19 since Dec. 29 in a win over UCLA.
But challenged by Mississippi State's duo of Quinndary Weatherspoon and Lamar Peters, who combined for 48 points, Homesley came up big and reminded Liberty head coach Ritchie McKay of why he'd taken a chance on him coming out of high school in North Carolina.
"He hurt his knee his senior year," McKay said. "We had no idea if he was any good or not."
It's little surprise Homesley slipped through the cracks and landed at Liberty, a fledgling mid-major just finishing its first season in the Atlantic Sun Conference.
Homesley sprouted from 5-foot-8 as an eighth grader to 6-5 as a high school sophomore and then promptly missed most of that season with a broken hand. He put together a breakout junior season, averaging 19 points a game, that earned him offers from Gardner-Webb, High Point and Appalachian State, among others. Homesley seemed on his way to even more before a knee injury ended his senior season before it even started.
Derrick Wall, his old AAU coach, thought Homesley could've played his way to a bigger school if not for the concern about his knee.
"Caleb was a late bloomer, recruitingwise," said Wall, who watched his former player's big night from home in Charlotte, North Carolina. "I always felt like he could've played at a big school. But it obviously worked out."
When Homesley arrived at Liberty, McKay could see the talent but knew his freshman would need more of a work ethic to fully tap into all of his gifts. He decided to stoke Homesley's competitive fires after one particularly lackluster effort at practice.
"I told him, 'Division II isn't a bad level,'" McKay recalled. "'If you don't work harder than you're working, you're going to end up at a different level because your talent isn't living up to your ability.' And he flipped the script."
Said Homesley: "I wasn't used to the level of work in college. I was lazy."
Homesley finally seemed on the verge of a long-awaited breakthrough as a sophomore, averaging 12.9 points and 6.3 rebounds before another knee injury ended the season. It was a bummer, he said, but at least he knew what to do this time. He got a redshirt year and played his way back into shape last season, coming off the bench and providing some depth on a team already loaded at the guard position.
This season, Homesley has taken his game to another level, and his teammates have noticed the change.
"I'm just so proud of him," said Scottie James, a junior forward. "I know his fight and how good he's been. To see him flourish this year, he's been playing at a high level and I think right now he's the best player in the league."
And Friday in San Jose, Homesley showed he might be capable of even more when his team needed him most.
"I think any shot that I take is going to go in," he said. "It just happened tonight that they were falling."